Several weeks into the lockdown, many of us are getting used to the new normal of social distancing, working from home and home schooling.
Yet the reality is very different for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable and disadvantaged families across the UK who are experiencing much more serious challenges as a result of the lockdown.
When I think back to my own childhood, I can’t imagine how my family would have managed during this crisis. For my parents, who had come to the UK from Kashmir and who couldn’t read or write in any language, this would have been a very worrying time. My father, was a shop floor labourer, would most likely have lost his job by now.
I’m conscious that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities have been especially hard hit. They are more likely to catch the virus, and less likely to recover from it, but they are also more vulnerable to many of the social consequences. For example, Muslims like me are now marking a holy month of Ramadan like no other in our lifetime.
More generally, social divides have never been so pronounced.
Self-isolating is one thing in a large house with a garden and a secure job that can be done from home. It’s a very different experience for a single parent whose job is on the line, living in a small flat in a tower block, with no outside space.
There has been talk of coronavirus being a ‘great leveller’, but at Barnardo’s we see the opposite. Fundamentally, this crisis is highlighting deep-rooted inequalities that we have been papering over for decades. Vulnerable children and families – and those already experiencing disadvantage – risk becoming the forgotten victims.
Parents are desperately trying to do the best they can for their children. But with a maximum of just 5% of vulnerable children attending school there is a huge divide between those who can learn at home and those who can’t. Parents are bombarded with resources which are meant to help, but this approach simply won’t work in all families or communities.
Some parents can’t help with home learning, and ‘digital poverty’ – lack of devices or internet access – means many children already at a disadvantage will continue to fall behind at school.
This also means that many children can’t access vital support services, whether that’s face to face with a support worker or online.
With families facing increasing emotional and financial pressures, we know a growing number of children are at serious harm – isolated from the support systems they usually rely on. Yet at the same time, these children are less likely to be identified and referred for support. In a recent survey, 45% of Barnardo’s frontline workers said that referrals have fallen since lockdown – and referrals to statutory services have fallen too – meaning vulnerable children are left suffering in silence.
For example, children who care for unwell relatives are often overlooked, especially when they come from BAME communities. The Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre has found that BAME individuals are three times more likely to get seriously ill from coronavirus than their white peers, while a Guardian analysis showed that people from minority groups appear to be overrepresented among the coronavirus deaths, by as much as 27%. This will result in a growing number of BAME children taking on additional responsibilities for ill relatives, and, sadly, suffering bereavement.
For many other children, home is no longer the safe place it used to be. 57% of Barnardo’s frontline staff are concerned about an increase in family conflict and stress during the lockdown. We already know domestic abuse has skyrocketed – in the UK and around the world – and there are growing concerns that children are more at risk of sexual, physical and emotional abuse too.
The inevitable consequence of this pressure cooker environment is that we will see more family breakdown, more children entering care or suffering abuse, and demand for mental health services moving from crisis to catastrophe.
At Barnardo’s, we acted quickly to adapt our essential services so that we can reach vulnerable children and young people online or over the phone, and we’ve even expanded our work to ensure families falling into poverty have access to basic necessities like food and toiletries.
Like many other charities, we are stepping in as families fall through the net. If we don’t, they will require far more extensive, and expensive, support in years to come.
But we are facing a perfect storm, with our income decimated overnight while demand for our support grows daily.
Charities are the glue that hold society together. The shockwaves of COVID-19 will be felt throughout society for years to come – especially by the most vulnerable – and we must be there to pick up the pieces. To respond to this growing need, we are more reliant than ever before on the generosity of the great British public.
By Javed Khan, Barnardo’s Chief Executive